“Why don’t you say something nice instead of being a smart-ass all the time?”
– Joe Biden, Sh*t My Vice-President Says by Threshold Editions (2010)
To understand my early journey toward manhood is to invoke the bitterness of the nameless soul survivor from Notes from Underground and the sense of violated childhood I felt resonating from the opening passages of Catcher in the Rye. I was lost, and rather surprised that I was making progress through it. Probably the most decisive positive influence, the one that may actually have saved a wretch like me, was the constant care and inspiration to live now shown me by Catholics — specifically, the brothers at Catholic Memorial High in Boston and those at Camp Lasalette in Ipswich, where I spent a couple of summers, including the Moon Landing one. And the nuns at Sacred Heart weren’t any slouches either on the road to Bethlehem, even looking the other way the time I kneed the school bully, who’d made countless cries, right in the jingle bells.
Everything that moved me about goodness in the world and in the idea of communion, and provided me with a sense of exaltation and the sancta simplicitus of the Golden Rule and becoming, introjecting Christ through transubstantiation — was all due to these brothers who were there for me. They weren’t bookish monks, but happy, smart, and activists (I felt like I had my own squad of Berrigan Brothers assigned to save my soul). I’ve heard many tales growing up of priests bringing evil to childhood and desecrating the Vibe, but my Catholicism, though now long lapsed, was a joyous intersection that saved my life.
My life as a Catholic boy, while not as fraught as that described by Jim Carroll on his album by the same name, was still full of sin and worry (including the time some LaSalette brothers got me shitfaced at a steakhouse when I was 12); but it was also an introduction to Latin, rituals, Bach and Handel, homilies and the sympathetic empowerment of the priesthood, and of the curious practice of money in little brown enveloped being coughed up when the basket came around. (I was once with an adult at Mass who put a button in the basket; presumably he’s now Satan’s seamstress in Hell.) All such memories, vague as they are now, proved a useful and rather interesting filter through which to read Ben Schreckinger’s new book, The Bidens: Inside the First Family’s Fifty-Year Rise to Power. Biden is only the second Catholic elected president (JFK was the first) and Schreckinger imbues the narrative with references to his faith that enrich his political life.
It turns out this Catholic overlay is an insightful strategy for Schreckinger to employ as he brings us through the narrative of the slow-burn rise to ultimate power of the Biden family. Because, really, The Bidens briefly opens with a contemporary reference to the NY Post laptop email scandal (repairshopwiththeblindguygate) and closes with it. The political biography of the family — not just Joe — is sandwiched between. The implicit question to the reader is: How did we get here?
Schreckinger is a national political correspondent for Politico magazine. Most recently he covered Trump’s years of shenanigans. He adds at his website, “He has also written on politics, economics, culture and their intersections for Slate, Newsweek, the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and the Financial Times, among others, from Boston, Ireland and Burma.” His background in the classics is not indifferent here, as his discussion of the Biden family has the specialty to it, as if he were deconstructing the life of Oedipus before his blindness cost him — and his family — everything. Classic tragedies are about the fall of great hubris-ridden families. But probably you won’t need your hamartia hankies for this one, and if there is any catharsis in this one — well, let’s just say that the Riddle hasn’t yet been proposed by the sphinx-like MSM.
So Schreckinger starts with the Biden family Catholicism. But not just any Catholicism — not yours or mine — but Kennedy Catholicism. Schreckinger spends roughly the first third of The Bidens building their Catho cred. And then blends in the desire, family-wide, for the Bidens to be seen as Kennedy-esque in stature and esteem. Il Papa faves, but not really, as that would make the blood of the loud-knocking Lutheran derivatives boil. Kennedy, who did not finish his term as president (nor will Joe, if his gathering senility is any indicator), had to put up with thit about his likely allegiance to Rome early on and often, but put the issue to rest in famous 1960 speech where he avers “the absolute separation of church and state.”
This was no small matter (but was unique), as all other presidents had been either Let It Be Deists or Lutherans knock knock knockin on the Castle church’s door as they hammered their 95 protest theses that essentially rejected the assertion of the Church as the mouthpiece of God, with tithes and indulgences rejected, too. The latter was sometimes seen as the equivalent of buying your way out of conscription for war for a price or sending someone else to Hell in your place. This led to the adoption of the Vulgar Latinate Bible.
Like Kennedy, the Bidens claim, they often had to reaffirm to the Protestant majority their commitment to the separation of Church and State, which, as the late actor Ed Asner (Lou Grant) pointed out in a book before he died, didn’t worry the Prots much, as they were always bringing in God to defend their nefarious doings, even though God is not mentioned in the Constitution. Still, that mysterious placement of the brown envelope in the basket at Mass causes the freeman’s eyebrow to raise. It probably isn’t a payoff, but an infiltrating Protestant might have a button ready, to be read as a wink by a counting prelate later.
Schreckinger cites Biden biographer Jules Witcover in describing them as a “particularly tight Irish Catholic family that put loyalty, along with religion, above all other considerations.” Following on from the issue of Church-and-State, maybe the key word in the preceding sentence is “loyalty.” As with the Kennedys, there was lots of loyalty shown throughout the family that resulted in tight knit nepotism for what Schreckinger calls “the Biden clan, America’s middle-class Kennedys.” Schreckinger goes out of his way to paint the Bidens as Third Tier Kennedy-esques, with John Kerry and his Catholic family placed between the Real Deal and Knock-Off Joe’s family.
Schreckinger provides a neat example of how the Bidens borrowed from You-Know-Whos mystique early in his political career (we’re told Joe always thought he’d be president, even as a little kid), when he was running for the Senate for the first time up against the multi-term incumbent Caleb Boggs. They held “coffee klatches” over which Jean “Mama Biden” presided. He writes that the klatches were held:
around the state to give the housewives of Delaware a chance to see Joe up close…After each get-together, Neilia and Val sent a handwritten note to each attendee…They had gotten the idea from the Kennedys, who hosted family teas as part of Jack’s 1952 Massachusetts Senate campaign, another long shot challenge to an entrenched Republican incumbent.
Of course, what’s not said about our Catholic Camelots is that their infiltration into the slippery halls of respectability often has corrupt, illicit roots. As dashing and as handsome as JFK was as a Camelot figure marketed by the Press (and there’s no doubt he came a lot in the White House, when Jackie was away, according to tabloid gossips with naughty tongues). A blurb to The Dark Side Of Camelot summarizes Seymour Hersh’s findings:
His father, Joe, set the pattern with an arrogance and cunning that have never been fully appreciated: Kennedys could do exactly what they wanted, and could evade any charge brought against them. Kennedys wrote their own moral code.
All of this out of the gangster-swagger brought on by the criminal subversion of the mightily unpopular Prohibition by Kennedy patriarch, Joe, that no doubt, made Kennedys the toast of the town and shoo-ins for political office later.
With John Kerry it had been his Grand Papa’s less glamorous and far away lucrative drug-dealing during the Opium Wars in China in the mid-19th century, and Kerry himself seems to have inherited an enthusiasm for greasing “slopes.” . What a hoot to hear Senator Kerry pontificate in the late ‘80s during hearings he held on what PBS described as “An investigation of the CIA and its role in international drug dealing.” The mighty war hero, with Purple Hearts from phantom shaving accidents, actually had the chutzpah to say in the hearings he held, “We permitted narcotics. We were complicitous as a country in narcotics traffic at the same time as we’re spending countless dollars in this country to try to get rid of this problem. It’s mind boggling.” Is it, John? Is it mind-boggling?
As a lesser light “in the Kennedy mold” the Bidens’s rise has been based more on wishful thinking and self-mythologizing (for example, the now infamous and bizarre Corn Pop tale that describes false heroism — one lone white man standing tall with a chain up against three Black thugs with knives in a parking lot as he tried to get into his car; they run; no explanation is given for why they didn’t just slash his fuckin tires, and make his white ass skedaddle: Stephen Colbert does a fun send-up) than anything else, and many folks see Biden as scraping the bottom of the barrel of the Lesser Evil choices for president Americans are offered every four years against their will. And only a catastrophic failure of leadership among Democrats saw Biden rise to the occasion in 2020 (and, according to Greg Palast and Ted Rall, more sabotage of “socialist Jew” front-runner Bernie’s candidacy). But the same nepotism, if not more, applies to the Bidens than with Kennedy and Kerry. And this lesser lighthood is the way Schreckinger approaches the Biden family history.
Schreckinger is fairly thorough in putting together an image of how the Bidens “take care of each other” with finding appointments and jobs that assist in a better life than they had before the appointments and jobs. Schreckinger would no doubt agree that such nepotism is not considered evil or unusual in general, so often does it occur, but that it can be problematic when the product that generates ‘generosity’ in the form of jobs and payments is political influence, a kind of ‘money for nothing and your chicks for free ethos.’ We have come to know this as “pay to play” activity — one of the worries that some folks had with Hillary Clinton doing State Department business with her email transactions stored on a private server beyond the reach of public scrutiny (Oh, you meany, James Comey!).
To shore up the Biden-Kennedy creds, there’s lots of family loss to be passed on, little cumulus tragedies that together add up to brooding storms of self-doubt and no little loathing, which, we now know, can pull down great families and humbler ones alike. While campaigning in December 1972, Joe got the news that his wife Neilia had been in an accident, with their children Naomi, Beau and Hunter. A tractor-trailer had hit their car at a crossroad in Delaware and killed his wife and daughter Naomi, and injured Beau and Hunter.
Schreckinger notes that up to that point “the Biden mystique” had failed to fully graduate to the Kennedy Shine, but after this very Kennedy-esque family tragedy that changed. As Schreckinger puts it, “The campaign had made the Bidens a lively subplot of the 1972 election cycle. The crash seared their story into the national consciousness.” Biden falsely accused the truck driver of “DWI,” but no charges to that effect were ever made.
Schreckinger repeatedly expresses how the accident affected Joe. “He considered quitting the Senate before he started,” he wrote. “He went to the bishop of Wilmington to ask about getting a special dispensation to become a priest.” He “went through severe depression.” He considered suicide, and in his memoir, Promises To Keep, he relates how Biden considered suicide and cites the book: “Suicide wasn’t just an option, but a rational option.” That would have been it had he killed himself; he never would have gone to Heaven to reunite with wife and child. One notes the use of Robert Frost for his memoir title; JFK’s favorite poet.
Then he came out of his depression and was punchy. Schreckinger tells of Joe and a pal were pouncing “silently through the streets of Wilmington’s roughest neighborhoods at night, looking for a fight.” Fists clenched tightly, muscle strutting. Another group, walking at them, wouldn’t give way on the sidewalk and they confronted each other. Oh-oh, I’m thinking, it’s Corn Pop and his pals wanting some after all. Schreckinger writes:
Joe thought to himself, Take ’em on. As they all stood facing each other, wondering who would throw the first punch, a cop came around the corner. It finally dawned on Joe, What the hell am I doing? I’m a United States senator.
Deftly handled. Funny, but pathetic.
Out of the myriad Kennedy-esque tragedies that follow — Joe, Sr., the patriarch dies; Beau, his protege, and attorney general of Delaware, succumbs to brain cancer just as he is ascending; Hunter marries Beau’s widow; Hunter is in-and-out of rehab for cocaine and crack abuse (even as Joe is gaining a rep as a throw-away-the-key type for cracksters); Joe has an aneurism that sidelines him; Joe begins jibber-jabbering shit: ‘You’re a dog-faced pony soldier’ to very nervous laughs — his family becomes the center of his attention (even more than it Catholically was before — as nothing is as important as the nuclear family: see Roe vs. Wade). He re-married, to Jill, a gorgeous blonde, who became his bulwark and emotional protector. Into this new closeness, Schreckinger introduces all of the extended family’s network of nepotistic activities that, together, raise the family fortunes.
He continued to build street cred as “a people’s person,” the author relates, including pandering to the local “Irish” by raising a glass of soda water (presumably; he’s a teetotaler) to the IRA. At a Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick fete, “When Joe took the stage, he praised the Irish love of liberty and criticized London’s heavy hand in Northern Ireland,” Shreckinger relates. Then we read how important it was to skinny dip in “the River.” At a backyard gathering of friends, Biden held court:
Some people, most people, don’t even know the river is there. But it’s there. Some people know about the river, but they can’t get in. They only stand at the edge. And some people, a few, get to swim in the river. All the time. They get to swim their whole lives, anywhere they want to go, always in the river of power.
For some reason, this reminds me of The Swimmer with Burt Lancaster, and I drop everything to see if the film is on my Janus/Criterion list.
Schreckinger makes several passing references to the Biden forbear’s slaver past. It’s not as intense to read about, even in passing, as the 200 slaves that Edward Snowden’s forbears owned on a plantation that went onto become the land where NSA headquarters was built (pass the bong), but, as Schreckinger points out,
In many contexts, a candidate having distant ancestors who owned slaves would not have much relevance to a campaign. But in the summer of 2020, racial justice protests triggered by a police officer’s murder of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, roiled the country like they had not done in decades.
I’m not even sure how the Corn Pop myth helps him with Blacks. Is he the milk?
Schreckinger spends some time, although not nearly enough, exposing some of the nastiness and corruption underlying some of Joe’s political decisions. As a US Senator from Delaware he smoothed the way for his state to become a tax haven and a place that openly welcomed credit card companies. After graduating from Yale Law School, Hunter was offered the executive vice president position at MBNA, a rising credit card company, despite his lack of banking experience: “Hunter rejected concerns about the political ties between the firm and his father.” This rejection of such influence becomes a sudden leit motif of the book.
Joe became a strong supporter of what some people deem a form of soft loan-sharking: Getting folks hooked on the sugar of credit at high interest rates, eventuating in their certain “dead beat” status — long term payers of high interest with no reduction of the principal for years — with lifestyle-lethal credit reporting there to enforce the savage beat down by the Caps. Schreckinger observes:
Throughout this period, Joe was a steadfast supporter of MBNA’s top legislative priority, the Bankruptcy Reform Act, which made it harder for Americans to declare bankruptcy, and thereby shed credit card debt. Consumer advocates fiercely opposed the legislation. Joe went to great lengths to advance it, inserting it into a foreign relations bill in 2000, when he was ranking member on that committee. The gambit fell short, but Joe kept at it.
Joe made love to the debt slavery industry. Joe was often deep in debt himself, but had ways out of it, unlike the average Joe without Kennedy-esque pretensions.
The author saves the ‘best’ for last, as they say. The book begins with the laptop Hunter left at a blind man’s computer repair shop in Delaware that became a sensation between the sheets of the NY Post in October 2020, leading to a knee-jerk reaction to the story that Glenn Greenwald tried to open up, but saw get shut down by Democrat-leaning publications, including The Intercept, leading to his resignation in protest from the publication he founded. Recently he crowed that “new evidence” was released, in this book, validating his previous assertions (see my recent piece on Greenwald’s assertions and what’s at stake). As indicated before, there is a mountain of circumstantial evidence (which will never convict) that the Biden Family nepotismal activities, and a lot of Joe’s work as a US Senator, amount to fraud and corruption. Schreckinger offers up two solid areas of inquiry that should see future investigation: one involving financial activity in China, the other in Ukraine.
One area of concern is the long-controversial Ukrainian (Cypriot-owned) energy company Burisma. Getting caught threatening Ukrainian president Zelensky that he would withhold military aid if he didn’t go on a dirt-finding excursion into Hunter Biden’s appointment to the board of Burisma is what led to Trump’s first impeachment. This call was transcribed and an NSC CIA officer blew the whistle on this alleged extortion attempt. But John Kiriakou, the CIA officer who blew the whistle on CIA torture and did time as result, came out and said that in his humble O the NSC whistleblower was not a whistleblower but a political operative trying to take down a president. You know, like Deep Throat, the disgruntled associate director of the FBI.
It now appears that the likelihood of extortion was still in play despite the failed attempt to oust the president (Trump didn’t get convicted in the Senate only because it was stacked with Repugs), there’s also a good chance that Hunter was placed on the Burisma board to improve the image of the company and give it access to VP Joe Biden, then in charge of the Ukraine portfolio under Obama. Even Hunter suggests, in his memoir, that he did little lawyering for Burisma. Schreckinger tells us, citing Hunter’s memoir:
He was tasked with helping Burisma clean up its corporate governance and paid roughly $1 million a year to do it. The easy money allowed Hunter to feed his worsening drug addiction.
At the time of his appointment, Burisma was under investigation in the UK for money-laundering, but was forced to drop the case when Ukrainian refused to cooperate.
The NY Post piece last October, just before the election, that zoomed in on an email from a Burisma executive thanking Hunter for the opportunity to meet Papa Bear is the first tangible evidence that Joe knew of such business transactions, despite his repeated denials. Here is the note from Burism advisor Vadym Pozharskyi:
As Schreckinger suggests, this is no smoking gun, but is evidence that “influence peddling” may be in play.
More damning though is the Chinese Connection scandal. Going back to the laptop left at the blind repairman’s shop, Schreckinger writes,
The files include sexually explicit photos and videos; an audio recording that appears to be of Hunter complaining to an unidentified woman that a New York Times reporter has called him to ask about his relationship with Patrick Ho, whom Hunter refers to as “the fucking spy chief of China”; emails about Hunter’s taxes; correspondence from 2014 in which Hunter describes a desire to arrange high-paying legal jobs for his father and brother, in part to pay for Beau’s cancer treatment; and text messages that appear to be from Joe, expressing support, such as, “Good morning my beautiful son. I miss you and love you. Dad.”
Suddenly, we hear squishy composting taking place in undisclosed pantaloons.
Patrick Ho is the “right hand man” of Ye Jianming, the former Chairman of CEFC China Energy Company Limited. Ho was been arrested and tried for fraud (defended by Jim Biden). Ye is in a Chinese prison for bribery. The Biden relationship with CEFC is fraught. The NY Post published an email that suggested a compensation package, says Schreckinger:
The breakdown indicated that “H” and the three other partners would get 20 percent each, along with 10 for “Jim” and, finally, “10 held by H for the big guy?” The email seemed to indicate that Hunter planned to hold 10 percent of the venture on behalf of Joe.
All of this was still iffy speculation until Tony Bobulinski, another Biden partner, piped up for the Post and went all Donald Sutherland on his ass. In a potentially damning admission, Tony tells us that:
Hunter Biden called his dad ‘the Big Guy’ or ‘my Chairman,’ and frequently referenced asking him for his sign-off or advice on various potential deals that we were discussing. I’ve seen Vice President Biden saying he never talked to Hunter about his business. I’ve seen firsthand that that’s not true, because it wasn’t just Hunter’s business, they said they were putting the Biden family name and its legacy on the line.
Hmph. He closes by saying, God Bless you and God Bless the United States of America, Suspicious in itself.
In the end, Schreckinger’s The Bidens is a well-researched and nuanced write-up of a powerful Catholic family in a Protestant political world. It applies the religio-familio filter deftly, but maybe, at times, at the expense of more trenchant political analysis. Last year, I reviewed Paul Street’s book Hollow Resistance that largely paints Biden as far more poisonous than we get from Schreckinger, who leavens his account with layers of humanity — probably because he’s still young. Street castigates Biden for seeking sympathy by bringing up the tragic losses of dear people who died — for political purposes. Street reminds us that the fucker’s probably evil, if the impression you get from Street’s list of horror decisions that he’s made under multiple administrations in his 50 years in office is an indication (see Imperial Joe, page 138). For now, Street relates, “Speaking to rich donors at a ritzy New York fundraiser in June of 2019, Biden promised his listeners that ‘nothing would fundamentally change’ if he is elected.”
Ben Schreckinger’s The Bidens is a worthwhile read and I recommend it.